Personal Democracy Forum 2016: Here Are the Breakout Panels

This year at Civic Hall’s Personal Democracy Forum we will have more than two dozen breakout panels across the two days of the conference, covering many aspects of civic tech, organizing and activism, current ideas and controversies, media innovation, culture hacking, and digital government. Here’s your guide to what’s on tap, grouped by subject. We’re still adding a handful more speakers and panels, so check this page regularly for updates.

Civic Tech

Introducing the Civic Tech Field Guide

Civic tech, or the use of technology for the public good, is made up of hundreds of discrete projects, tools, platforms, organizations, and social processes. At this panel/workshop, we’ll share the results of an ongoing field scan to identify all of the information currently available about the state of civic tech, and offer a working taxonomy that sorts this information into easy-to-understand categories. The civic tech field guide aims to make it easier for people to understand where they fit, help newcomers learn from the experience of veterans, and move resources in productive directions.You can view and contribute to the developing Civic Tech Field Guide at Micah L. Sifry, Erin Simpson, Matt Stempeck

Civic Features: When Platforms Do Public Good

There are standalone civic tech products, and then there are civic features within mainstream tech products. Google Maps can give you directions to your polling place on election day. Bing can show you how candidates are polling. Facebook can point you to your local elected officials once you friend your Members of Congress. Embedding civic actions in the products already used by millions of people allows us to increase our impact by orders of magnitude. What does it take to embed civic good in the world’s biggest platforms? What do we need to do to encourage more of it? Come discuss with some of the civic product designers who have done it. Speakers: Ellora Israni, Jacob Schonberg, Betsy Aoki, and Matt Stempeck (moderator)

At the End of Every Data Point is a Human Being: Technology for the Global Refugee Crisis

The global refugee crisis is posing one of the biggest humanitarian challenge of our time. In twelve months, millions more people around the world will likely be refugees, some will have found refuge or returned home, and all will continue to develop their own innovations to secure safe passage and livelihood for their families. In the same timeframe, will members of the tech and media communities still be exploring ways and remain committed to support refugees, or will we have moved on?  While part of the tech community has been discussing how to help, it seems like the current thrust of technology responses is considering refugees only as victims, and developing solutions often taking refugees out of the equation by being “about them” as opposed to developed “with them.” You can’t “hack a solution” if you don’t have all stakeholders at the proverbial table. On the other hand, people—often including policymakers—exhibit luddite tendencies—and seem to see technology usage by refugees as a demonstration of their self-sufficiency as opposed to a tool of lifesaving necessity.

So what do we talk about when we talk about “hacking the refugee crisis”? Where is the line in appropriate tech responses in a situation where both crisis and chronic challenges are experienced by refugees at the same time? In this panel, we will explore: What is the situation on the ground in multiple global regions? What are refugees telling us? What does “getting involved” mean for the civic tech community? What can we do in the short term? In the long term? (Who’s sticking around?) What is the “tech refugees need”? What does impact look like? Speakers: Lina Srivastava, Antonella Napolitano, Sarnata Reynolds, Abdi Nor Iftin, Yvette Alberdingk Thijm (moderator)

Ethical Frameworks for Civic Tech

Do we need a shared code of ethics/set of guiding principles for the field of civic tech? Data privacy and security, growth hacking, behavioral design, micro-targeting, AI and the like are having tremendous impact on our private lives raising ethical questions at every turn. Leveraging these 21st century tools within the realm of civic tech is possibly wrought with ethical dilemmas when used with the general public. How do we as practitioners in a growing field ensure the design and use of technology for the public good—civic tech—be done in a responsible, ethical way? That the practices around design are not only human-centric, but community-centric? That the philosophy behind responsive UX and UI go beyond the Silicon Valley model? And that AI and micro-targeting don’t further institutionalize racism online? Speakers: Sunita Grose, Emily Jacobi, Deena Rosen, and Elizabeth Stewart (moderator)

Bid With, Not For: Building Empathy Into Selling Civic Tech

Civic tech has a sustainability problem. For all the funding that has been sunk into promising civic startups and projects over the past 10 years, there are precious few examples of successful businesses serving the public good. It’s unlikely that every civic tech project can find a sustainable revenue model. But those companies that have market fit in the civic space need to sell, sell, sell. This panel will focus on what it takes to sell civic tech with authenticity. We’ll explore why business development and sales skills are often anathema to civic entrepreneurs. And we’ll discuss how user-centric practices like empathy and active-listening, can help us align our drive to good with the need for reliable revenue. Speakers: Christie George, Ariel Kennan, Chris Maddox, and Lawrence Grodeska (moderator)

Movement vs Sector: How Civic Tech Can Combine Both to Succeed

This panel will explore what similarities, if any, the civic tech sector shares with 21st century social movements and what it can learn from these to drive participation, engagement, action and impact. It will draw on new research from movement mapping specialists Purpose that helps illuminate the new challenges and opportunities facing the civic tech sector. Speakers: Stacy Donohue, Natalie Foster, Mariana Ruiz Firmat, Jeremy Heimans, and David Eaves (moderator)

Community Partnership Models for Civic Tech (Sponsored by Microsoft)

As the civic tech ecosystem grows, companies, nonprofits and community organizations are experimenting with a wide range of models for working together on common concerns. This panel will look at emerging patterns, drawing from the work that Code for America, DataKind, Microsoft and others have embarked upon in the last couple of years. Speakers: Mischa Byruck, Julia Rhodes Davis, Elsa Sze, Andrew Singleton, Annmarie Levins (moderator)

Engagement is a Two-Way Street: Lessons From Data-Driven Cities (Sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies)

Partners in Bloomberg’s What Works Cities initiative will share learnings from 30-plus participating cities across the United States, with a look at how city leaders are using the civic tech tools of open data portals and policies, performance management and behavioral science to help local governments build relationships with residents and make better decisions in the process. Speakers: Beth Blauer, John Wonderlich, Elspeth Kirkman, and Simone Brody (moderator)


Organizing and Activism


In a followup to her main hall talk at Personal Democracy Forum 2014, Dr. Kimberly C. Ellis (aka @DrGoddess on Twitter) will host a panel discussion on the emerging role of #BlackTwitter into the popularity of the “movement with a hashtag” activism of #BlackLivesMatter. The panel will look at how the movement for Black lives has emerged on the social network and the further application of tech innovation to civic engagement, as people move to turn the pain of poverty, police brutality, and other forms of injustice into actualized, political power beyond street protests and media misrepresentation. Speakers: Lizz Brown, J. Matthew Williams, Marcus Ferrell, and Kimberly C. Ellis (moderator)

Fighting Dystopia: Local Communities and Global Issues in Surveillance

At every level of zoom, from our international communications infrastructure to our everyday neighborhood interactions, surveillance is a pervasive and growing threat. But the ways in which we address that threat vary, from advancing the adoption of encrypted messaging to pushing for law enforcement reform and oversight. In this panel, we look first at local activism, especially among communities that have been marginalized and subjected to disproportionate invasions of privacy. Then, we’ll move to U.S. federal policy battles over our right to secure communications, and international anti-surveillance tactics. Throughout these discussions, we’ll keep an eye on the ways that technology has helped—and hindered—the efforts to push back against a mass surveillance dystopia. Speakers: Esra’a al Shafei, Parker Higgins, Evan Feeney, and Harlo Holmes  (moderator)

Directed Network Campaigning: Balancing Grassroots Autonomy with Central Strategic Control

In the past 10 years, a new generation of advocacy campaigners have found ways to hand power over to their grassroots base through distributed organizing, crowdsourcing, and by building cross-movement networks. At the same time, the most successful innovators have maintained central strategic oversight and high level political and PR framing which, coupled with people-powered momentum, has produced impressive scale and real world impact. In this panel, representatives from Hollaback!, Greenpeace, and Groundswell will discuss the challenges and rewards of harnessing the power of their self-starting supporter base towards concrete campaign outcomes. Speakers: Emily May, Michael Silberman, Esther Meroño Baro, Tom Liacas (moderator)

Scaling Movement Organizing in a Digital Age

This panel will look at ways to merge the traditions of mass protest and structure-based organizing with new capacities for scaling based on emerging digital tools and practices. It will draw on the distributed organizing experiences of the Bernie Sanders campaign,, the Movement for Black Lives, and Occupy Wall Street. Speakers: Nicole Carty, Zack Exley, Duncan Meisel and Allison Fine (moderator)

Transforming Advocacy in a Mobile World (Sponsored by icitizen)

The term “grassroots” has been used to describe the political and economic might of everyday people for more than 100 years. However, a rising tide of 21st-century tools is changing how we think about engaging our communities. This panel will discuss the changing advocacy landscape and how new mobile tools like icitizen, Hustle, Polis, and NationBuilder  can be used to collect powerful data through direct communication with your community—data that can then be used to drive growth, participation, fundraising and awareness while measuring the impact your efforts are having. Speakers: Mark Keida, Perry Lowenstein, Hilary Doe, Kendall Tucker, and Russ Reeder (moderator)

Ideas and Controversies

The Business Case for Encryption: Why Privacy and Data Rights Matter

With the U.S. government and the tech industry at loggerheads, this panel will look at the issues raised by the fight for strong encryption, including: What’s at risk with weak or non-existent encryption? Should users be offered the opportunity to encrypt their own data? Is encryption—or the lack of it—a civil rights issue? Given demands by many governments for “backdoors” to data on encrypted devices, how should and can companies respond? How long will it be before more companies are in a situation similar to Apple? What are the long-term implications for privacy and data rights? Speakers: Nabiha Syed, Peter Micek, Michael Connor, Priya Kumar, and Katie Benner (moderator)

Donald Trump: Fluke or Harbinger of a New Model?

After the presidential election of 2012, conventional wisdom among campaign strategists and political scientists alike has held that successful national campaigns require an intensive investment in voter data, analytics, and computational management of volunteers and field. Donald Trump’s successful bid for the GOP nomination appears to upend those arguments, as he defeated the rest of the Republican field by relying heavily on free and social media and, seemingly, little else. This panel will explore the question of whether Trump’s rise through the Republican field should be seen as a unique occurrence, or as a harbinger of other similarly-styled campaigns to come. Speakers: Aaron Ginn, Dave Karpf, Sasha Issenberg, Zeynep Tufekci, and Nancy Scola (moderator)

Platform Design and the New Labor Economics

On April 21st, Uber announced settlements in two class-action lawsuits over whether Uber drivers should be classified as independent contractors or employees. While the rulings affirmed the independent contractor classification, the changes Uber agreed to make in its own practices—greater transparency in driver ratings, support of platforms for aggregating drivers’ voices, institution of procedures for resolution of grievances, etc.—are a recognition that Uber is not just a platform for consumers to get a ride. It is a also a means of providing livelihoods for increasing numbers of people.

Several years ago, researchers with the Institute for the Future pointed out that we are at the beginning of an historic transformation in the nature of work and structure of American jobs. A host of technologiesfrom automation to digital platforms for coordination of tasks—are reinventing not just what people do to earn a living but at a much deeper level how we organize to create value. These apps are quickly becoming our entry points for work, gateways to people’s livelihoods. Whether or not platform creators realize it, they are engaging in socioeconomic design, the design of systems that people will rely on to structure their work, earnings, daily schedules.

This panel will look at how we can design platforms that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them. In this session, Institute for the Future researchers will share their latest research on platform economy, both from the perspective of latest technologies as well as experiences of workers currently engaged in on-demand work. Speakers: Marina Gorbis, Rod Falcon, Devin Fidler, and Natalie Foster

Is the Civic Tech Story Broken?

We have an expectations problem in the civic tech world that is making donors waste money and social justice projects waste opportunities. When foundations and executives expect technology to create rapid results, or massive results, they can set up their tools and their teams to fall short. And simplistic expectations mess up the incentives for advocates and donors alike. Advocates will keep talking like tech utopians even when they know better, to secure funds; and donors will smooth over tech projects that underperform, to tell an easier story to their boards and their peers.

To fix these mismatches in expectations, civic tech needs a better story. One that celebrates not just innovation but alignment between donor missions, tool designs, and local impacts. One that rescues the word “learning” from the stigmas of “evaluation” and “failure” and gets people across the civic tech ecosystem to celebrate project shortfalls for what they teach us about not repeating our mistakes. Our panel of experts from the tech and donor communities will come with good and bad stories from the expectations gap, and we’ll work with session attendees to brainstorm new stories that will help civic tech strengthen its realism and its civic conscience. Speakers: Shaifali Puri, Sam Dorman, Elizabeth Eagen, and Jed Miller (moderator)

Media Innovation

Data-Driven Journalism

From tracking political advertising in real-time to discovering the hidden authors of legislative amendments to predicting the likely outcomes of policy fights, data scientists and investigative reporters are finding new ways to track the ins and outs of the political process. This panel will offer several case studies of path-breaking tools and how they are being used to improve journalism. Speakers: William Li, Nancy Watzman, Alex Wirth, Joanna Kao, and Erhardt Graeff (moderator)

Tech and Political Debates

Televised debates have come to drive the political narrative, but how well do they actually serve the interests of voters? Many members of the public now watch debates while commenting using a second screen, or searching for information in real-time as the debate unfolds. This panel will look at current efforts to use interactive technology to make debates more responsive to voter questions and concerns, drawing on recent experiments in the United States and overseas. Speakers: Erica Anderson, Lilia Tamm, Adam Green and Christine Cupaiuolo (moderator)

Don’t Be Overcharged—How Open Data is Changing the Political Ad Marketplace (sponsored by Comscore)

How do we create situations where truly competitive down ballot campaigns can be run without spending millions of dollars? This panel will look how this shift is starting to play out, focusing on of DeRay McKesson, who recently ran for mayor of Baltimore. From buying more digital, creative creation costs going down, to exposing closely held industry data on what ad inventory really costs because of recent FCC rulings requiring broadcasters, cable, and radio to publicly and digitally report what commercial inventory they sold to which candidates and PACs for what price. As more data becomes available, it becomes a pure economic case study of the cost of search going down for everyone. This helps creates a situation where truly competitive down ballot campaigns can be run without spending millions of dollars. Come learn how open data in the ad marketplace is shaking up the status quo. Speakers: DeRay McKesson, John Pudner, Carol Davidson, Jen Nedeau (moderator)

Culture Hacking

Divided and United States: How Stories Can Change the Conversation

With race and class seemingly dividing Americans more than any time in recent memory, culture is often the place where we hash out our differences. Politics and policy follow. During this session, we will look at how a new breed of artists and community organizers are using new forms of story-telling to help us listen to each other and understand each other better. Speakers: Luna Malbroux, Annabel Park, Kenyatta Cheese, and Andrew Slack 

#GivingTuesday: The Growth of a New Global Civic Tech Model

#GivingTuesday is a not just a day of giving, it is a social movement, one that has opened a global conversation about giving in all its forms. It has led to a remarkable increase in donations on the day following CyberMonday, but has also inspired a new level of innovation, creativity, collaboration, civic engagement, and capacity-building across multiple industries, demographics, and regions. What can we learn from #GivingTuesday about how much inclusive, open-sourced movements can achieve? Speakers: Asha Curran, Lucy Bernholz, Aaron Sherinian and Deanna Zandt (moderator)

Digital Government

Building a More Awesome Government: Case Studies from the U.S. Digital Service

Since its establishment nearly two years, the U.S. Digital Service, an arm of the White House, has moved to dramatically upgrade how federal agencies make, acquire and deploy technology. On this panel we’ll hear from three USDS staffers about their work with the Department of Education, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Speakers: Erie Meyer, Emily Tavoulareas, Eduardo Ortiz, Ibrahim Abdul Matin (moderator)

Digital Strategies for Government

The idea that government agencies need to move aggressively to modernize their information technology services, upgrade their use of digital platforms, and hire the talent that can actually implement these approaches is starting to take hold across government. On this panel we’ll hear from leaders who are taking the 18F gospel into Congress, into the states, and into the heart of New York City’s government. Speakers: Seamus Kraft, Travis Moore, Robin Carnahan, Jessica Singleton, Lorelei Kelly (moderator)

Open Data Policy and Practice: A Tale of Two Cities

In many major cities, open data is moving beyond activism and into implementation. This panel will look at the experience of two such places, New York City and Los Angeles, seeking to understand the components of successful open data strategy. The panel will include a mix of political decision-makers and open data users, and will look at questions like: Who owns data quality? How can we use design help to answer that question? How can we decouple data interfaces to better suit the needs of disparate users? How to improve the accountability of open data practices? Speakers: Vyki Englert, Sarah Henry, Ben Kallos, Gale Brewer, Melissa Mark-Viverito (welcome remarks), and David Eaves (moderator)

Can Tech Change Voter Turnout? (Sponsored by the Knight Foundation)

New election tech combined with corporate muscle is poised to move the needle on civic engagement in the U.S. On March 23rd, Democracy Works launched The TurboVote Challenge with Starbucks, Univision, Target, Airbnb, Spotify, Lyft, and seven other companies to help us achieve 80 percent voter turnout by 2020. It’s a big idea meant to shift the narrative around voter participation and mobilize our entire society toward the goal of mass participation. So far, Starbucks has set the tone by encouraging all of their nearly 150,000 employees to sign up for TurboVote, and that’s just the beginning. What would our democracy look like if every company worked to get employees and their customers more deeply engaged? Can we more companies to join in and reach millions of Americans? Can we build a coalition strong enough to last beyond this election and create historic change? Speakers: Speakers: Mike Ward, Adrienne Lever, Steven Levine, Amanda Padgett, Catherine Bracy (moderator)

Can We Build Trust in Congress? How do we sustain a public square? (Sponsored by the Democracy Fund)

There’s no doubt that public trust in Congress is at historic lows, and everyone has their pet reason. A systems analysis from the Democracy Fund and collaborators is seeking to understand the dynamics that are driving Congress’ capacity to respond to the needs and demands of citizens and the state of local news and participation. Is increasing digital capacity critical?  How can Congress deal with information overload? How do we invite the public to engage more deeply?  How do we sustain the production of news and information given the much lamented decline in local news outlets. Speakers: Betsy Wright Hawkings, Danielle Brian, Craig Aaron, Susie Gorden, Tom Glaiyser (moderator)

Tickets for Civic Hall’s Personal Democracy Forum 2016 are still available (with discounts for non-profit and government employees). Prices go up at the door; don’t delay!